What Leaders can Learn from Service

LeadershipExecutive Search
min Article
Ben Shrewsbury
January 06, 2022
4 min
LeadershipExecutive Search
Executive Summary
Leadership lessons come from many places – education and related work experience, for example.


Both of those factors have a place in leadership development, but one often overlooked way to build leadership muscle memory is through service.

The concept of service was ingrained in me from an early age – I watched my parents and grandparents give of themselves in support of others across their personal and professional lives. The notion of service became even more relevant in my college years and beyond when I embraced a profession that held as one of its core values, “Service Before Self.” 

When colleagues and clients find out about my time in the US Air Force, many are interested to hear about those experiences, especially given the military’s reputation for building capable, people-focused leaders. While I certainly learned a lot during my time in the military, the lessons that came out of putting purpose before self in that phase of my career helped lay a foundation that has carried over into my observations and actions outside the military.

Going a step further, I’d argue that any leader should incorporate service roles to help build leadership effectiveness. And it doesn’t need to come from time in uniform. The opportunity to serve each other exists in multiple ways. It’s more a mindset than a specific affiliation. As we know, there is a whole philosophy around servant leadership that demonstrates the advantages of a leader that positions themselves in service of their teams and the organization.

Without getting into the specifics around what servant leadership is or arguing the merits of the practice, some of my own experiences underscore how service – in any capacity – can help foster a leadership style that will well support the leader and the organization. This is especially true as leaders employ empathy and inclusion in driving positive culture within their teams and organizations.

This idea is reinforced by Russell Reynold’s most recent, multi-year analysis of what most impacts a culture of belonging – the ultimate test of an organization’s diversity efforts. You can read the report titled Walk the Talk: Inclusive Leadership Development Moves the Needle on DE&I [here]. If there is one key finding I would highlight, it is this: Inclusive leadership characteristics such as empathy and the willingness to accept feedback have measurable impacts on inclusion and give belonging a lift more than any other factors measured.

That finding further supports how leaders can use a service mindset to build soft skills that deliver hard results – a great starting place in understanding how serving your team builds an inclusive culture.

First, when leaders treat their role as a service to their team, it puts a priority on the team. This organically cultivates a more supportive environment where members are compelled to build each other up in the name of common goals. It’s a dynamic that empowers employees to contribute by making the work more personal and helping everyone see how their individual contributions impact shared accomplishments.

Second, serving a team requires leaders to solicit feedback. This is a key element of driving an inclusive culture and a point that was confirmed in our study. Asking people about their challenges or calling on them to share their ideas helps employees feel heard and valued, which fosters engagement.

A third benefit is leadership accountability. Leaders who operate from a foundation of service take personal responsibility for outcomes versus putting that expectation on the team. Many leaders who shoulder accountability tend to be good motivators of their teams. In turn, their teams are more likely to be reliable stewards of the business as they become enthusiastic supporters of broad goals versus a singular focus on impressing “the boss.”

Finally, leading from a service-orientation helps elevate a sense of purpose. Again, this stems from being a part of something bigger than the individual. The idea of not only having a “good job” but doing good in the process of your job is a driving factor in where people choose to work. Research has found that when leaders connect people to the purpose, those employees are more engaged, more loyal and more productive. This has a lot to do with how employees perceive leadership. When they see leaders are more concerned about the team, they truly become engaged in the task at hand.

DE&I, as it should, will continue to be a key organizational imperative, especially as the war for talent escalates. Leaders know that it is about far more than hiring the right people. You must keep and develop the talent you have. And, doing that requires a workplace experience where staying warrants the commitment from the team. Companies that want to influence inclusion and drive a culture of belonging should consider teaching leaders how the values of service can help get them there faster and in a more meaningful and authentic way.